Chris Burden

(b. 1946)

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(1946– )

American artist, born in Boston. He studied at the University of California, during which time he made Minimalist sculpture. However, he came to attention with a series of disturbing, potentially dangerous actions, which raised issues about the limits of art. The first of these was Shoot (1971), in which he had a friend fire at him with a rifle. The intention was that it should only graze his arm, but Burden actually sustained a flesh wound. In other works he risked electrocution and was crucified on the roof of a car. In Through the Night Softly (1973) he crawled through 50 feet of broken glass by night.

These events had, principally, a kind of underground reputation, being seen by few. A blurred eight-second film and a rather longer audio tape are all that can now be experienced of Shoot, but by the mid-1970s Burden had moved into the mainstream gallery world. In White Light/White Heat (1975) a platform was built ten feet high in the Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York. To the visitor it would appear no different from a piece of Minimal sculpture. However, on the ledge, completely unseen, lay Burden for the length of the entire exhibition, fasting. The critic Robert Horvitz described the effect in these terms: ‘The assumption that he is there alters everything—but I don't know for a fact that he really is there. I become “it” in an unannounced game of hide-and-seek. I listen for any telltale rustling, any breathing noises. The many small sounds that fill the gallery are magnified by my attention’ (Artforum, May 1976). Horvitz admitted that Burden raised moral questions about art that he could not answer but found that to be part of the value of his work.

Some of Burden's later work, such as The Flying Steamroller (1996), reflects his interest in machinery and engineering. The steamroller is raised on one end of a beam which can rotate. On the other end there is a counterweight. When the roller is driven at a certain speed a hydraulic press raises it from the ground and it appears to fly. Even more technologically elaborate was the Ghost Ship, a project of 2005 which consisted of a boat that was programmed to sail unmanned from Fair Isle in Scotland to Newcastle upon Tyne to coincide with a nautical race.

Further Reading

P. Schjeldahl, ‘Performance: Chris Burden and the limits of art’, New Yorker (14 May 2007)

Subjects: Art.

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